Manning vs. Unitas: MUST READ

Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders ranked the top 5 Colts quarterbacks of all time.  1-2, of course, were filled by Peyton Manning and Johnny Unitas.  Tanier ranked Manning 1st, and explained it in maybe the greatest piece on Manning’s legacy I’ve ever read. 

“Manning won four MVP awards and had five other extremely valuable seasons. He has been an MVP-caliber performer every year since 2003, as well as in 2000, when he led the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns for a 10-6 team. He earned a Pro Bowl berth in every season except his rookie year and 2001, the only year of his career that can be considered “off” by any meaningful standard. Sustained excellence of that magnitude for five years is rare, let alone ten. It’s an accomplishment no quarterback, and frankly few athletes in any team sport, can match. 

Counting MVP-worthy seasons is a good way to differentiate among all-time greats, isn’t it? Counting Pro Bowl berths is great, but the sixth best quarterback in the league can get a Pro Bowl spot, and that’s assuming nobody comes up with any phantom injuries they need to rest. Working with actual statistics is fraught with problems once you cross eras.  Counting actual MVP awards leaves you with a bunch of players who won two or three, so you do not get the separation you need when comparing Hall of Famers among themselves. We all know the problem with counting Super Bowl rings. Without hunting down MVP votes, we can call an MVP-worthy season one in which the player accumulates outstanding statistics while making a major contribution for a playoff-caliber team. That’s what Manning did in 2000, and in every year from 2003 on. 

We lose sight of just how amazing Manning’s accomplishments are because we are living through them, we enjoy laughing at his infrequent slipups, and his consistency makes us take what he does for granted. The last five seasons have been variations on a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown, 15-interception theme, with his team winning at least 10 games and reaching the playoffs every year. Even for the great quarterbacks in history, a five-year run of playoff appearances, statistical excellence, and perennial Pro Bowl berths would be the centerpiece of a career. While this five-year run does include Manning’s two Super Bowl appearances, it comes after two MVP awards, a record-breaking 49-touchdown season, two passing yardage crowns, a 14-2 season, a 13-3 season, and two 12-4 seasons. If Peyton Manning’s career had started in 2006 -– if everything before that happened in the USFL -– he would be a Hall of Famer and one of the 15 or so best quarterbacks in history (his record would be similar to Steve Young’s in many ways). But his career started in 1998, and that’s why he is arguably the greatest quarterback ever, and unquestionably one of the top five. 

Johnny Unitas won MVP awards in 1959, 1964, and 1967. The 1964 award was a little odd –- Jim Brown and Bart Starr may have deserved it more –- but MVP ballots are delicate things. Heck, Manning may not have been the best choice in 2008. Anyway, Unitas had true MVP-type seasons in 1957, 1958, and 1960. Let’s give him 1965 as another one. That’s seven MVP-type seasons to Peyton’s nine. Both players were first-team All Pros five times, though Unitas did it in a much smaller league. Manning has one more Pro Bowl appearance. Manning has won 23 more regular season games with only three more losses. 

Careers tend to be much longer now, which gives Peyton an edge, but it’s important to recognize that he has not really entered his decline yet. Unitas’ decline started with an injury in 1968, when he was about the same age as Peyton will be this year. His decline phase included two Super Bowl appearances, one win, and over 6,000 passing yards during a defense-dominated era. It also includes most of the memories many of us have of Unitas, either from life or from NFL Films. Peyton could have all manner of adventures ahead of him: more Super Bowl appearances (possible), another Pro Bowl berth or three (likely), even a Unitas-like stint as the old gunslinger on a defense-oriented team. The fact is that he doesn’t need them to create a very strong case that he is better than Unitas.

One thing that often happens in these arguments is that we adjust the contemporary player down because careers are longer and stats are more prolific, but we never adjust the old timer down for the fact that media coverage has changed. In Unitas’ heyday, sportswriters were almost uniformly fawning and invested in mythmaking. The football media was also rather primitive, compared to the modern football mass media and to baseball media of the time, so players weren’t scrutinized heavily or scouted minutely. We don’t have detailed scouting reports documenting every minor Unitas mistake, long columns explaining how Unitas lacks the courage or gumption to defeat Bart Starr, or bloggers making fun of Unitas’ post-interception facial expressions. We had a hero-champion-warrior king. You cannot compare that bronze bust to the guy who will take the field in September (I type this with ever-increasing confidence) and possibly lose or throw two interceptions. You have to make harsh judgments when comparing old legends to new. You have to notice the fact that from 1961-63 Unitas was the third-to-fifth best quarterback in a 14-team league. You have to remember that Colts did just fine without him the year they reached Super Bowl III, a sign that his “leadership” was not all that important to a team that did darn well with his backup at the helm. 

There are other things to adjust for. Unitas won three titles. Winning an NFL championship in 1958 and 1959 meant winning one championship game, no playoffs. The other title came in 1971, when the NFL Colts got to share a division with four newly-arrived AFL teams, three of them terrible. The Jets, Bills, and Patriots combined to win seven games the year the Colts won Super Bowl V. This sounds like I am picking away at Unitas, and I don’t mean to do that to one of the best quarterbacks ever. I am just explaining that “adjustment” is a two-way street. Unitas’ 1950s Colts won 12-team leagues. It was an accomplishment, and a sign of excellence, but not a cudgel that can be used to beat another player over the head for winning a 32-team league “only” once. 

There’s a reflexive need to argue against Manning’s greatness, and I noticed it when looking through the message boards in the last few weeks when some of you were anticipating this Colts list. For Manning, we have amazing stats, wins, and longevity. Leadership that in any other era would be universally lauded. Uniqueness and durability at a position where a missed game is potentially a disaster. We toss them all away and point to a handful of playoff losses. The problem isn’t bad here at Football Outsiders, where you guys really delve into the evidence and come away with measured conclusions. In other places, it is pathologically nutty, and some of them aren’t even Patriots fansites. 

There are many reasons to pick Unitas over Peyton, and I would not go to war with someone who wants to make that choice. But I think some people want to kick Peyton out of the Top 10 of all time, or even the Top 20. To them, I say this: anyone who does not consider Peyton Manning one of the ten best quarterbacks of all time either hasn’t studied the issue at all or is arguing from some kind of goofy agenda. I don’t see any reason to keep him out of the Top Five. 

While doing this project, I have spent hours and hours staring at quarterback records: the stat lines, their playoff records, John Maxymuk’s Quarterback Abstract, old encyclopedias, game logs. I had to study Steve Young and Joe Montana, all the Cowboys greats, the 1950s legends and AFL guys. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in any of the records like Manning’s body of work over the last decade. There is no run of 12-4 seasons and statistical dominance that lasts anywhere near as long, period. Terry Bradshaw and Tom Brady cannot touch it. John Elway does not come close. Neither does Dan Marino, who had a lot of great statistical years for 8-8 teams. Joe Montana has something more checkered, although it is brilliant enough that it is arguably greater. Unitas has 1957-60 and several punctuation marks, so he has a case. Brett Favre has his four-year run and lots of (very good) stuffing. Otto Graham has something that looks better if you can stomach AAFC statistics. But really, Manning’s statistical record is completely on its own, and to write it all off is to write this whole decade off.”


About Josh Wilson
Follow Josh on twitter @jwilsonWL, on Facebook at the Operation: Freedom page, or you can reach him by email at

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